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Emma Thompson discussed her screenwriting process, differences between the genders and her appreciation for Clint Eastwood and Billy Wilder at a BAFTA and BFI screenwriters lecture in London on Saturday night.
Eastwood has always been “a great hero” of hers, she said. “I grew up on westerns.” Since she grew up watching them with her father every night, she said, “I was very much influenced by that form.”
Speaking at the BFI Southbank location, she recalled a memory from when she won an Oscar for her work in Howards End (1992), while Eastwood won for Unforgiven. She said the actor put his Oscar next to hers and said: “Well, we did it.” She added: “I said, ‘Weeee!?’ It was so moving. It was like, I don’t know, being knighted or something.” She added of Eastwood that he was “divine” to her and her mother.
Thompson also told the audience Saturday night that “Billy Wilder is my hero.” She quoted a comment from him about what a great movie needs — all good scenes, no bad scenes and one great scene.
Thompson, who recently appeared on the Tonight Show to play charades with Jimmy Fallon, Tim McGraw and Bradley Cooper, several times addressed the differences between men and women. “Our brains are not [all that] different,” but “essentially the same,” she said. “The Venus/Mars thing is so awful,” and writers “really have to come to terms with the fact that our brains are essentially the same.”
Discussing how male and female jokes are different and whether humor always needs punchlines, she said she used to have discussions about that even back in the day. “I think you need a punchline when you are a boy, because men’s jokes are essentially something that goes on and on, leading to an ejaculation,” she said. “You have to react at the end. You have to laugh at the end.”
She added: “Women’s comedy is more circular,” with little laughs here and there and sometimes a big laugh. Thompson concluded that the approach to humor “goes hand in hand with our sexual, our orgasmic nature.”
Thompson early in her career wrote comedy for stage, radio and television. She mentioned her time at Cambridge University drama club The Footlights with Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and other famous names. She said she auditioned partly because she liked their work and wanted to help add women, because the group was male-dominated at the time. She was among those young women shocked that some people felt women couldn’t be funny, she said. “Being funny is about being confident,” she said.
“It was difficult to get in sideways because Stephen and Hugh were so wonderful,” Thompson explained. She and a female comic wrote a female revue. “Then we auditioned quite a lot of women who weren’t funny at all,” she added.
She also discussed how focusing on honor often is not thought of as a female quality, whether in westerns or other movies. “I still identify with Clint Eastwood,” Thompson said, pointing out that women’s on-screen jobs are typically to beg a man not to leave to be a hero. “That drives me mad,” she said. “Honor is thought of [as] a very masculine thing. To me, the honor of women is equally powerful and mysterious.”
Much of Saturday’s discussion focused on the screenwriting process, with Thompson silently acting out her typical writing day while the audience entered the venue.
Barefoot and wearing jeans overalls, she was sitting at a small desk with a small lamp, writing with a pen on paper, with tossed-away paper on the floor. At times, she got up to pace around the room or do yoga poses on a purple yoga mat, and she even took out a vacuum cleaner for a bit to clean the floor before sitting back down.
She later said that she really tends to work that way, with “a lot of crying” and “fetal positions” involved as well at times.
In the mid-1980s, Thompson was commissioned to write the sketch show Thompson. She said the show, which wasn’t well received and didn’t return for a second season, didn’t use a laugh track and was “a massive failure” and involved “lots of weeping and gnashing of teeth.” She said she used mostly political and edgy sketches about sexuality, dieting and the like. Reviews were bad, which was tough on her. She recalled that it was “a very violent experience,” adding that she never wrote another monologue or sketch after that. “I think that’s quite tragic actually,” she said. “It was a terrible experience. … If you can’t fail like that, you can’t do this job.”
But she said she was asked to write a screenplay for Sense and Sensibility after the sketch show aired “on some obscure channel” in the U.S. in the middle of the night.
The script took her years, with the first of 17 drafts having 600 pages, Thompson recalled, showing off a box of all her drafts.
“I write everything by hand” before putting anything on a computer much later in the process after several drafts, she explained, saying that the nice, clean look of computer type may falsely suggest that a script was in good shape. “If you keep rewriting by hand, you will rewrite it as you write automatically; you are not copying,” she said.
Eventually, her feature screenwriting debut, Sense and Sensibility (1995), for director Ang Lee, based on the Jane Austen book, saw her win an Oscar and get a BAFTA nomination for her screenplay.
She later also wrote Nanny McPhee, which she said had elements of a western, and its sequel.
Great screenplays “take out the stuff that doesn’t work,” Thompson also said, in sharing tips for good writing. “I think screenplays are about the ellipsis. It’s all about energy.”
Since she also acts, does she write scripts for specific people? “I often write a character with an actor in mind, and then never get them” for the project, she quipped. “Sometimes it’s very helpful,” even if it is a dead actor.
Asked about her role model, Thompson said, “My mother [actress Phyllida Law], because she is a great writer, she was my first editor.” She told the audience that she used to perform standup for her in the kitchen and get edit suggestions from her.
She also talked about her late father, joking about how he disliked the French but was asked by the BBC to write English scripts for French productions. “I was very lucky that both my parents could and can write,” Thompson said.
Her father, Eric Thompson, was the voice of BBC kids TV show The Magic Roundabout, which was based on a French show, but he had a stroke when he was 48. Thompson recalled how the family tried to find new ways to communicate, using cards with words and pictures and the like.
“He was a working-class self-made man” who was “deeply articulate,” she said of her father. He also taught her that there was no need to talk down to kids, she said.
Asked to describe the comedy she used to write, Thompson said she started writing sketches when she was 18 or 19, saying “all of the comedy I wrote really was political.” She mentioned the first sketch she ever performed, at 16, was from a comedian popular at the time and dealt with race relations.
She also performed a monologue she wrote a long time ago about a British middle-class woman meeting a Vietnamese immigrant at an art gallery. The sketch ended with the woman realizing, to her surprise, that the immigrant was the painter of the artworks in the gallery.
Last year, Thompson spoke in BAFTA’s “A Life in Pictures” series, criticizing the star system. “The star system is not a good system. It’s all hierarchical,” she said. “I think that’s just revolting. It is revolting for actors to become grand.”
Back then, she also lauded Anthony Hopkins and Dustin Hoffman for being actors who are “great” without being “grand.”
On Thursday night, former Focus Features boss James Schamus gave his BAFTA screenwriters lecture, discussing Hollywood’s current focus on China and other topics.
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